Honor-Shame in Africa

Africa religion honor shameThere seems to be a lack of literature about honor-shame in Africa. Compared with Asian and Arab culture, I have discovered only a few anthropological and theological resources on the topic.

Here is what I have found to date. If you know of more works, please share them below as a comment. Thanks!

I find this the minimal amount of research and publication in this area quite surprising considering Africa’s long and rich Christian history. For example, the Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology has zero mentions of “honor” or “shame” (and “purity” and “patron*”) in any title (1982-2011). I suspect one reason is because missiologists categorize Africa as “fear-power” due to the animistic tendencies of African traditional religions, thus minimalizing the social “honor-shame” dynamics of African culture. This is just an initial hunch; if you have another plausible explanation, please comment below. 

resources for Majority World ministry

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10 comments on “Honor-Shame in Africa
  1. You observation of the lack of Honor and Shame literature in Africa is not surprising, as the basis for most African cultures is fear and power. When surveying one African culture for a seminary in Africa they estimated that Fear-Power made up 70% of the culture, Honor and Shame 20& and Guilt and Innocence about 10%. Most of their textbooks and courses addressed issues from a guilt/innocence perspective. Perhaps this explains why Christianity in Africa is said to be very wide spread but only addresses surface issues.

  2. Martin Munyao says:

    You are right in that missiologists have generally categorized Africa under fear-power simply because of the animistic worldview predominance. We need to keep in mind that Asian cultures are also very animistic. Hence there seems to be an underlying connection between fear-power and shame-honor.

    In addition I would also attribute the lack of HS literature in Africa to the European missionary history. European’s guilt-innocence framework continues to blind many African Biblical scholars from reading what is plain in the Biblical text, namely HS. Hence the inability to see Africa’s HS social structure. Talking of Kenya in particular (my home country) — you only need to watch the news and interact with the people to see how competition for honor in public places shapes the politics of the land. Islamic and tribal militant groups are also on top of the news, killing enemies/opponents to restore honor and revenge for shame incurred.

    Lastly, I would also say that, literature about HS is lacking in Africa because generally speaking, its is too humiliating to talk about shame in Africa’s social and religious spheres. Even when competition for honor and fear of shame is the software that we run on everyday, a few will admit to recognize it as our social dynamic.

  3. HonorShame says:

    Here are two more relevant resources brought to my attention:

    1-“Shame and Guilt: A Key To Cross-Cultural Ministry” by Hannes Wiher (lived in W. Africa 18 years). A comprehensive dissertation contrasting shame and guilt consciences in culture and theology. The free PDF version is available here: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/resources/rfiles/res3_234_link_1292694440.pdf

    2-Gerry Snyman, “The Rhetoric of Shame in Religious and Political Discourses: Constructing the Perpetrator in South African Academic Discourse,” Old Testament Essays 19/1 (2006): 183-204.

    Thanks to Sandra, Martin, and others for mentioning these!

    Also, Martin Munyao of Kenya is researching honor-shame for his US-based PhD dissertation. This will be a significant contribution in this area as well.

  4. Martin says:

    Hi, I recently came across a book authored and published in Kenya addressing Honor-Shame. “Reconciliation in African Context: Paul’s Theology of Reconciliation Engaging Honor and Shame Cultural Elements Among the Gusii, Lughya and Luo People of Western Kenya” by Joseph Ochola Omolo.

    Not only does he refer HS as being central to the reconciling tribal groups that have been in honor competition for many years, but he also defines sin in cultural terms as dishonor.

  5. HonorShame says:

    This link here has all the publications (that I know about at least) about honor & shame in Africa, and is continually updated–https://www.zotero.org/groups/honorshame/items/tag/Africa


  6. Michael Palmer says:

    I have just finished reading ‘Honour in African History’ by John Iliffe. As a person who has worked (on and off) as a mission Partner in Tanzania for over 30 years, I found the book to be very helpful addition in my ongoing appreciation of Tanzanian culture. Well worth reading the 369 pages.

  7. Andrew Mbuvi says:

    I found this analysis of Shame/honor culture and guilt/glory world map useful for giving us a global view. Apparently, honor/shame societies happened to be in the majority while western theological discourse with its focus on guilt has shaped theological dialogue of the last several centuries.

    A. Mbuvi

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